Is the UN Promoting Environmental Apartheid? News from the Durban Climate Talks and Why You Should Care

By Shannon Biggs

Global Exchange’s Community Rights program director Shannon Biggs returns from the UN Climate conference in South Africa where she, along with climate justice advocates including former Bolivian Ambassador to the UN, Pablo Solon, Indigenous leader Tom Goldtooth, South Durban community activist Desmond D’sa and international colleagues from the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature held a series of activities in Durban to advance the Rights of Nature as an alternative framework to the corporate-led agenda of the COP 17 and the global economic system now being called environmental (or climate) apartheid.

Accompanied by a cynical shrug, “Durban-shmurban,” sums up the sentiments of those who have long given up hope that the best and brightest (or the 1% and corrupted) among this league of nations could ever unite to solve the human-induced climate crisis. After all, other than vowing to drive less and become greener consumers, the grand scale and technical scope of reducing atmospheric greenhouse gasses is beyond the rest of us to solve.

For those paying attention, including thousands of NGOs who came to South Africa to play a role in preventing the worst outcomes of the COP 17 (or to protest the process itself), it’s been alliteratively billed as the “Durban Disaster,” following previous UNFCCC conferences: 2010’s “Catastrophe in Cancun” and 2009’s  “No-penhagen” in Denmark.

So why should anyone pay attention to what happened at the UN climate talks? The failure of international leaders to come to agreement in Durban South Africa sounds like business as usual, and it is—but make no mistake: officially choosing inaction now is a guaranteed death sentence for millions of people and ecosystems.  If the lesson of Durban is that climate change is the symptom, and not the problem, this may be our game-changing call to action.

First, the bad news

On the final scheduled day of negotiations in Durban, the UNFCCC stunned even seasoned observers with a plan tantamount to genocide. Country emissions targets were dropped far below what science dictates; loopholes for the worst offenders to avoid their commitments, and most critically, most decisions were put off until 2020.

Rights of Nature activists at press conference (L-R Desmond D’Sa, Tom Goldtooth, Shannon Biggs, Natalia Greene, Cormac Cullinan and Pablo Solon

As environmental activist Nnimmo Bassey explained, “Delaying real action until 2020 is a crime of global proportions. An increase in global temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius, permitted under this plan, is a death sentence for Africa, Small Island States, and the poor and vulnerable worldwide. This summit has amplified climate apartheid, whereby the richest 1% of the world have decided that it is acceptable to sacrifice the 99%.

Apartheid is the Afrikaans word for “apartness,” and applied to the climate and ecosystems, it begins to get at what is behind the DNA-level failure of the UN’s COP process to achieve its stated goal of reducing greenhouse emissions.  Climate change is merely a byproduct of treating nature as human property (and therefore apart from us), to be destroyed at will. Our global economic system is property-based and driven by a value system of “endless more.”

As Pablo Solon stated at a press conference hosted by Global Exchange: “We can throw our garbage to the air and nothing happens. But we’re all part of one system, and the atmosphere is part of that system.   We have to respect the natural laws of this system. Because we have broken the vital cycle of carbon, its not only a matter of how big immediate reductions are, but how we change our relationship with nature.”

  • Read results of exclusive, closed meetings in Durban here
  • Global Exchange Human Rights Award winner Pablo Solon discusses outcome on DemocracyNow!

Following news of the outcome, credentialed protesters gathered and filled the halls, stairwells and lobby of the ICC (official space).  When UN Security began to remove the activists, Anne Petermann, executive director of the Global Justice Ecology Project, sat down. “If meaningful action on climate change is to happen, it will need to happen from the bottom up,” she said. “The action I took today was to remind us all of the power of taking action into our own hands. With the failure of states to provide human leadership, and the corporate capture of the United Nations process, direct action by the ninety-nine percent is the only avenue we have left.” For more, click here.

Redefining the problem is a game changer.

As long as it was accepted that climate change is the problem, it made a lot of sense to turn to international institutions like the UN as the driver for change.  This has tethered much activism to seeking concessions in a rigged game of false solutions, because the UNFCC is based not on the root causes of environmental exploitation—but ‘market fixes’ to the same corporate-led economic model and ‘endless-more’ value system that have driven us to the cliff’s edge.

Like the slow strangulation of a creeping kudzu vine, our activism has been constrained to a smaller and smaller patch of sunlight, options and regulatory schemes that weren’t even of our design. In this sense, the utter failure of Durban can be quite freeing—if we chose it—because it means we can actually address root causes of climate change, chiefly, our cultural and legal traditions of dominating the Earth for profit.

Occupy is the other game changer.

Occupiers and revolutionaries from Egypt to Wall Street and around the world have woken up millions of the disillusioned, and inspired them to find their own voice, their own power. Once awakened, we will seize this moment and shift the system itself that places corporate interests above our shared values of justice, equality, good jobs, healthy resilient vibrant communities and ecosystems.  In Durban, Anne Petermann and others sat down to remind us that we the 99% do have the power to change the rules. We can chose another way if we believe we can.

The Rights of Nature offers a platform for action to challenge the market-based approach that dominates the UN COP process.  “Why bring RON to climate change conference?” Pablo Solon was asked,  “Because if we are going to address climate change, we must address the issue of a new relationship between humans and nature. Its not just a problem with how many particles of CO2 emissions, it’s a problem of why does this happen?”

Where do we go from here? The Good news

A new framework for global action based on the needs of people and the planet already exists. The People’s Accord and the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth are key outcomes of the 2010 People’s Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, hosted by Bolivia and led by Indigenous communities and civil society. For more on this from the perspective of Durban see CJN! media release.

Those of us working on the rights of nature framework are seeking to reconnect humanity with the rest of species. We seek to change human law that can only “see” nature as a thing — separate and apart from us, property to be owned and destroyed at will. We seek to change the law because our own salvation can only come from a cultural mindset that we are a part of nature. Such a fundamental shift will require new laws that enforce and enable those cultural values.

  •  Watch our Durban rights of nature press conference here
  • Read our Durban Press release for rights of nature here

A People’s call to action, local national and global

While we take from nature the strength of diversity, we can remain diverse while uniting around the rules set forth by Mother Earth. We have in the past found solace strength and cohesion in broad strokes alignment with peasant farmers, landless workers, unions, Indigenous and non-indigenous communities.  That’s not going to be easy, but there is a lot of common ground.  For example, on the issue of rights of nature versus Indigenous rights, there are many different opinions among native traditions.  But there is tremendous Indigenous support for changing the dominant culture, and the fossil fuel economy that UNFCC is based on.

Shannon Biggs with Tom Goldtooth at the Global Day of Action in Durban

As Indigenous leader Tom Goldtooth says, “Our earth is our Mother, creator of everything, including two-legged people. Life as we know it is changing, we can no longer ignore the evidence, and it is our responsibility to be caretakers, guardians of our Mother. New economies need to be governed by the absolute carrying capacity of Mother Earth. More equitable, self-sustaining communities, with rights and respect.”

The United Nations is not going anywhere, but our messaging to the UNFCCC might change (though it is worth saying that next year’s conference has been scheduled in the zero-tolerance-for-protesting capitol of Qatar).

From Pablo Solon: “Well, if there is no pressure from civil society, there won’t be the possibility to have any kind of agreement that is in some makes a difference. If you want to change the system, there has to be a huge movement developed outside of the main structures. We must open the discussion. We have a mandate that the Rights of Nature must be part of the discussion in climate negotiations.”

At the national level, in addition to Ecuador and Bolivia who have passed laws recognizing rights of nature, as many as half a dozen countries are working with the Global Alliance on the Rights of Nature and are seriously considering rights of nature laws, and how Constitutional provisions, like Ecuador’s could be transformational and provide new ways to protect ecosystems. Some of those concersations were moved forward in Durban.  They tell us that creating a vibrant global civil society movement of campesinos, workers, unions, Indigenous and non Indigenous communities, women’s movements, peace, climate and social justice activists can support their efforts at changing laws to reflect a new relationship with the Earth.

At the community level, campaigning around climate change and even climate justice is often hard. After all, we cannot feel the burden of atmosphere weighted by carbon storage or truly know where in the world accumulations of CO2 were manufactured.  But we can feel the burden of society’s inventions that leave polluted rivers, cancer clusters, poverty, and tons of carbon emissions in their wake.

From the oil refinery fence line in South Durban, the gathering of international experts offers no solutions on the ground. Desmond D’Sa lives and works in Durban South Africa, the dirtiest city in South Africa, and ironically, host city to the COP 17. There, he is the director of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), an environmental justice network. Over 300 toxic industrial plants — including two oil refineries — operate in and around the city, particularly concentrated in the neighborhoods of south Durban, an area particularly disadvantaged by the legacy of apartheid. Explosions, accidents, spills, and other toxic exposures are part of daily life there, and the reason why Desmond has begun to introduce the idea of rights for nature and residents in South Durban.

As a rights-based organizer in California, I, along with my legal and organizing partners at the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) assist communities to pass groundbreaking new laws that place the rights of residents and nature above the interests of corporations.

We’ve often heard the takeaway from the COP processes in Copenhagen and Cancun is that the same corporate-led system that created climate change cannot be part of the solution. From Durban, we add that a relationship of apartness with the system governing our wellbeing cannot continue. The lessons from Cochabamba and Occupy Everywhere are that we have an alterntative vision, and we have the power to make it real.  To change the course of humanity, we must be bold enough to believe we are capable, and strategic enough to know how to use the ecological principle of unity of diversity to work in solidarity in myriad ways.

Download the report: Does Nature have rights? Transforming grassroots organizing to protect people and the planet. This report calls for action from the community-level to the U.N., and offers case studies of legal changes already underway in favor the Rights of Nature.

The following post was written by 2011 Human Rights Awards Awardee, Pablo Solon. Solon was present in Durban, South Africa where the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP17) was being held. You can read updates from South Africa by Shannon Biggs, Director of Global Exchange’s Community Rights Program, who was also present in Durban. 

By Pablo Solon

After 9 days of negotiations there is no doubt that we saw this movie before. It is the third remake of Copenhagen and Cancun. Same actors. Same script. The documents are produced outside the formal negotiating scenario . In private meetings, dinners which the 193 member states do not attend. The result of these meetings is known only on the last day.

In the case of Copenhagen it was at two in the morning after the event should have already ended. In Cancun, the draft decision just appeared at 5 p.m. on the last day and was not opened for negotiation, not even to correct a comma. Bolivia stood firm on both occasions. The reason: the very low emission reduction commitments of industrialized countries that would lead to an increase in average global temperatures of more than 4° Celsius. In Cancun, Bolivia stood alone. I could not do otherwise. How could we accept the same document that was rejected in Copenhagen, knowing that 350,000 people die each year due to natural disasters caused by climate change? To remain silent is to be complicit in genocide and ecocide. To accept a disastrous document in order not to be left alone is cowardly diplomacy. Even more so when one trumpets the “people’s diplomacy” and has pledged to defend the “People’s Agreement” of the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held in Bolivia last year.

Durban will be worse than Copenhagen and Cancun. Two days before the close of the meetings, the true text that is being negotiated is not yet known. Everyone knows that the actual 131-page document is just a compilation of proposals that were already on the table in Panama two months ago. The formal negotiations have barely advanced. The real document will appear toward the end of COP17.

But more importantly, the substance of the negotiations remains unchanged from Copenhagen. The emission reduction pledges by developed countries are still 13% to 17% based on 1990 levels. Everyone knows that this is a catastrophe. But instead of becoming outraged, they attempt to sweeten the poison. The wrapper of this package will be the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and a mandate for a new binding agreement. The substance of the package will be the same as in Copenhagen and Cancun: do virtually nothing during this decade in terms of reducing emissions, and get a mandate to negotiate an agreement that will be even weaker than the Kyoto Protocol and that will replace it in 2020. “The Great Escape III” is the name of this movie, and it tells the story of how the governments of rich countries along with transnational corporations are looking to escape their responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead of becoming stronger, the fight against climate change is becoming more soft and flexible, with voluntary commitments to reduce emissions. The question is, who will step up this time to denounce the fraud to the end? Or could it be that this time, everyone will accept the remake of Copenhagen and Cancun?

The truth is that beyond the setting and the last scene, the end of this film will be the same as in Copenhagen and Cancun: humanity and mother earth will be the victims of a rise in temperature not seen in 800,000 years.

Pablo Solon is an international analyst and social activist. He was chief negotiator for climate change and United Nations Ambassador of the Plurinational State of Bolivia (2009-June 2011).

By Shannon Biggs

Global Exchange’s Community Rights program director Shannon Biggs is in South Africa with our allies from the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature for a series of activities in Durban to advance the Rights of Nature as an alternative framework to the corporate-led agenda of the COP 17 and the global economic system.

Our day began early as we worked feverishly with students who travelled across South Africa on the “Climate Train,”(one of the most visible campaigns in the COP 17 process) to finish decorating 10 4-foot tall beach balls emblazoned with “Earth Rights NOW” in English, French and Spanish.

Earth Rights Now beach ball used in the march

These marches have a different flavor in South Africa, where music and dancing remain deeply embedded in the culture, a vital part of the solidarity movement that ended Apartheid.  As we arrived at the gathering spot, jubilant voices were raised in chanting and song from every group present, creating an atmosphere of oneness, no matter where you were from.

The march travelled several miles through the streets of Durban, stopping at the US Embassy, and the official ICC conference site, where speeches were made over the wall, and beyond the somber police line.  We playfully tossed our Earth balls across the fence, symbolically entering Rights of Nature into the official space.  The balls were returned by police forces caught somewhat off-guard at the gesture.  You can find yours truly at minute 11:20 throwing the ball to the ICC. Watch the video here!

Ultimately, the message of those participating was recognition that solutions to climate change were not to be found inside the process. The march culminated in the handing over of memoranda of understanding to UNFCCC COP17 President Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko, who came out to address the crowd.  She called upon civil society to “do more, and then…to do MORE, ” to which the assembled marchers responded in unison for her and officials to “do more.”

Below are some pictures and videos from the march, as well as some blogs from global participants.

Check out these other blog posts and reports on the events in Durban around COP17 this week:

Pictures taken by Shannon Biggs from the Global Day of Action People’s March for Climate Justice in Durban, South Africa December 3rd, 2011


By Shannon Biggs

The sun rises at 4:45 each morning in Durban, and like most of those still on California time, I woke soon after.  The beach here is beautiful and nearby so I decided to take a brisk walk amongst the shore fisherfolk and shell collectors, a great change the mad bustle of the ICC center, where the official negotiations for the climate conference are taking place.

Oil on the beach in Durban

The bluff beach is several miles south of the harbor—the largest on the African continent—and a few miles north of South Durban, where two oil refineries and dozens of other industrial plants operate. I walked and admired the wild coastline for a mile or so, then sat to watch the waves. Something black and sticky was on my feet, hands and shoes: it was oil.  Looking around, I noticed there were large plate-sized piles of black goo…everywhere.  Seaweed was coated in it, and as far as the eye could see there were literally tons of large and small deposits everywhere. Some firefighters up on the road were surprised when I showed them the sample I’d collected, and speculated that perhaps it came from a tanker spill in Kenya from last October, but no one knew for sure. Yesterday I’m told that the South African government is denying the “rumors” of oil deposits on the shore (and on my shoes and in my clear plastic bag). There were no big news items or beach warnings posted.

Shannon holding a bag of oil collected on the beach in Durban, South Africa

The disturbing and angering irony of a country hosting international climate talks while ignoring (and possibly denying) millions of tons of crude in the very midst of the negotiations is indicative of why international leaders will predictably fail to come to resolution or agreement on how to halt human induced climate change despite the stakes.  Instead, they speak of “adaptation” (get used to it) or “risk assessment” (what are we willing to lose next to feed the economic status quo).

Cynical, you say?  Not in the least.

Also gathering are pan-African and South African civil society and international climate justice activists—some to Occupy, protest and critique the continuing failure of the UN process itself to reach agreement on greenhouse gas emissions, some hoping to influence negotiators on minor concessions, and many others with reasons of their own. So many of the civil society participants come to talk about climate change in the context of the tangible work they are doing to stop dams, incinerators, deforestation or promote food sovereignty and indigenous rights.

We are here to talk to them—because when we stop putting false hope into the UNFCCC, we can finally turn to each other as the ones we’ve been waiting for. Global Exchange —and our partners including 2011 Human Rights Award Winner Pablo Solon (Bolivia) Fundacion Pachamama (Ecuador) South African activists from South Durban and environmental Earth Rights lawyer Cormac Cullinan, Indigenous Environmental Network, World Futures Council, and many others from the Global Alliance on the Rights of Nature — are here not just to critique the general framework of the UN climate process, but to share and discuss an alternative that requires we the 99% taking action.  The week ahead is for us, in this sense, is full of promise.

Banner from Duban protesting oil extraction

I brought my non-existent bagged oil along with me throughout the day’s activities. First to the Indigenous People’s Caucus, where Indigenous delegates report on the prior day’s negotiations around forestry, and to several other gatherings in the official and People’s space.  Saturday morning we gather for the Peoples’ march.

Stand with fellow activists from around the world Saturday, December 3rd during the Global Day of Action for people and planet.

While the official United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 17) is taking place in Durban, South Africa, thousands of people are taking action locally on Saturday, creating 1000s of Durbans, and thousands more are marching on the streets of Durban to demonstrate the people’s common determination to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Find out what’s happening around the world here.

Click, Sign and Say Reject, Don’t Just Reroute the Keystone XL Pipeline here. The Keystone XL pipeline has been called the fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet.

Stay informed about daily news from inside COP17 and from the streets of Durban. Both the Civil Society for COP17 site and Occupy COP17 blog have wonderful updates and photos.

Global Exchange is on the ground in Durban! Community Rights Program Director Shannon Biggs will participate in events relating to Rights of Nature, including press conference, panels, a teach in and an educational toxic tour, march and action with the residents of South Durban.

Occupy the Climate and Occupy Earth!

Click, Sign and Say Reject, Don’t Just Reroute the Keystone XL Pipeline here.

This December, the 2011 UN Climate Talks will be held in Durban, South Africa. As we approach this year’s conference, environmental and climate justice activists around the world have reason to doubt that our world leaders will come together in Durban and reach a solid agreement on a solution to climate change. Past conferences have demonstrated a predictable failure among international governments to reach an agreement adequate enough to save the planet. Mainly, because the UN Climate Change framework is based not on the root causes of environmental exploitation – but ‘market fixes’ within the corporate-led economic model and a system based on continuous exploitation of the earth’s resources.

This is the way it has been, but this is not the way it has to be.

There’s good news – people across the world are rallying for a new approach to protect our environment and curb the effects of climate change – establish and enforce laws which actually elevate the rights of nature (and communities) above the claimed ‘rights’ of corporations whose sole interests are development for profits.

Global Exchange, Durban community activist Desmond D’Sa, and The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), in collaboration with our international partners and civil society groups gathering in Durban are working to present an alternative paradigm emerging from communities at the grassroots – recognizing the rights of ecosystems and communities. This rights-based approach offers a different way to protect nature, enabling communities (rather than corporations) to act as stewards of local ecosystems and asserting people’s rights over corporations. The Rights of Nature framework comes from a new understanding of our human relationship with nature, from viewing nature solely as property for humans to exploit for profit to the belief that ecosystems possess the right to exist, thrive, and evolve, and that our laws must put our planet before profits.

Community Rights Program Director, Shannon Biggs, will be on the ground in Durban this December both inside and outside the COP17 conference, joining citizens and activists there who are leading the call for nature’s rights.

Why is the location of COP17 in Durban particularly important?

Durban is the dirtiest city in all of South Africa. Some days the air is clouded with enough pollution to block out the sun. In Durban, more than 300 toxic, water-polluting and extraction-based industrial plants (including an oil refinery with frequent explosions) discharge toxic pollutants into the air, water and land, damaging the health of residents, particularly those oppressed by apartheid, as well as uncountable plants and animals; directly contributing to global climate change.

With the world’s attention on Durban thanks to the COP17 climate summit, citizens and environmental activists have a unique opportunity to demand rights both for South Africans and the ecosystems on which their communities depend to thrive.

There are a number of actions and demonstrations already planned to carry the call for community and nature’s rights in Durban for the world to hear. Please stay posted for an upcoming piece on the events surrounding COP17 in Durban, including live updates from Shannon around the organizing on the ground. For info on how to get involved, please contact Shannon Biggs: (

Week of Action in Durban: Rights of Nature events

Dec 1st

– Global Alliance for Rights of Nature strategy session.  Members of the Global Alliance will gather in Durban to set priorities for 2012.

Dec 2nd

– HRA winner and lead UN negotiator for Bolivia Pablo Solon will be presenting to the public at the Wolpe Lecture on ‘The Rights of Nature and Climate Politics’

  • When: 5pm-7pm
  • Where: Shepstone 1, Howard College, UKZN

Dec 3rd

· Global Day of Action: C17 March

  • When: 9am gather – march starts at 10:30am
  • Where: Curries Fountain in the People’s Space

Dec 5th

· Rights of Nature Panel Discussion featuring Pablo Solon, Cormac Cullinan, Natalia Green, Shannon Biggs, and Tom Goldtooth.

  • When: 2:00-3:30pm
  • Where: The University of KwaZulu-Natal, Howard College at the T B DAVIS  BUILDING L4.

· Rights of Nature Teach-In

  • When: 3:30-5:00pm
  • Where: The University of KwaZulu-Natal, Howard College at the T B DAVIS  BUILDING L4.

Dec 6th

· Press Conference. Time & Location TBA.

–      Toxic Tour and Refinery Action and Rights of Nature march and action in South Durban. Speakers include GX’s Shannon Biggs (USA), Randy Hayes (USA), Pablo Solon (Bolivia), Cormac Cullinan (SA) Tom Goldtooth (Indigenous leader, Turtle Island), Natalia Green (Ecuador) Time & Location TBA.

Dec 7th

Rio+20 strategy session with all international allies. Time & Location TBA.

Dec 9th

· Rights of Nature: An Idea Whose Time Has Come – inside the COP17 conference

  • When: noon-1pm
  • Where: Blyde River Room